Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fire the Editors, and Work Till You Die: Seymour Hersh

For the last few months, I had been looking forward to attending the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva. This is the sixth meeting of a group that brings together muckrakers from dozens of countries.

Unfortunately, the Icelandic volcano had a say in my travel plans, and I had to cancel at the last moment. But that didn't stop me from following some of the proceedings online, including a keynote speech by the always provocative and entertaining Seymour Hersh.

No one has had a more illustrious career in investigative work than Hersh. He came to international prominence with his story about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Later, working for the New York Times, he broke many of the important stories during the Nixon administration. And he has kept on working, breaking the Abu Ghraib detainee scandal and many other exclusive stories about Iraq and Iran. Hersh's books are also fine examples of his investigative reporting.

Hersh began his remarks in Geneva by describing how difficult the life of an investigative journalist can be, chasing relcutant sources, and struggling with the moral dilemma of trying to convince people to talk, while knowing that their participation might ultimately damage their own interests. And then there is the question of editors.

"The better the story, the more they hate it," he said, only half-jokingly. Hersh repeated a line I have heard him use before. We could lose 70 per cent of the top editors at newspapers and networks, and be better off. The reason: people who get promoted into the upper echelons tend to be among the most cautious and conservative.

To the relief of many in the audience, he acknowledged there are a small contingent of editors who demand accurate sourcing and work with reporters to make their stories better. But then he turned his attention to governments.

"Governments lie," he said, echoing maverick journalist I.F. Stone's most famous dictum. "We don't. We make mistakes. There's a big difference."

In fact, Hersh said the biggest danger he sees in the collapse of the conventional journalism model is the potential for unchecked corruption at the local and regional levels. Without vigorous teams of investigative reporters operating at a local level, politicians will have a field day at the public's expense, he said. The rise of foundation-based journalism models, together with mass distribution possibilities of the Internet, could well pave the way for a promising future for the genre.

After trashing editors and government, Hersh turned his attention to journalism schools. He wasn't that impressed with them, noting that they often concentrate too heavily on newspaper layout and other technical tasks to the detriment of real journalistic skills. Even the live streaming version of the speech showed that the moderator of the session -- Brant Houston of the University of Illinois -- squirmed uncomfortably in his chair.

When asked about how much longer he could continue doing this kind of work, the 73-year-old Hersh seemed amused.

"This is a lifetime job," he said. "Illegal and immoral wars are good for my career."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Milestone for Non-Profit Investigative Journalism

Alternative journalism used to be a kind of slur in mainstream media circles, a phrase describing journalists who couldn't or wouldn't adhere to conventional norms.

In truth, alternative journalists have produced some of the most groundbreaking stories throughout the history of investigative journalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the alternative newspapers and magazines that dragged mainstream media outlets into a prolific era of muckraking work.

Today, as the economic crisis cuts deeply into the heart of the U.S. media mainstream, the alternative sphere has a whole new texture. Some outstanding journalists from leading media outlets have either quit or have been laid off, providing a strong pool for independent organizations to draw on. And such organizations have been proliferating in recent years, raising money from foundations and universities to practice a brand of investigative work that doesn't place the profit motive at the head of the list of objectives.

This week one of those organizations, ProPublica, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. It is a significant milestone that everyone needs to appreciate and try to analyze. In many ways, it marks an important turning point for American investigative journalism.

The Pulitzer went to Sheri Fink, who wrote a 13,000-word article called The Deadly Choices at Memorial. It chronicled one hospital's activities in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and how some doctors gave lethal injections to patients they thought could not be evacuated.

Fink's article appeared first on ProPublica's website. Two days later, it was published in The New York Times Magazine. This was an example of the organization's method of work, in which it researches an investigative story and then partners with one or more media outlets to ensure widespread circulation.

ProPublica is perhaps the biggest and best-funded example of the new breed of non-profit and non-partisan investigative institutes. With a significant endowment from the Sandler Foundation and support from other foundations, it has built an impressive team led by a former Wall Street Journal managing editor and a former investigations editor at the New York Times. With a newsroom in Manhattan, it has assembled a formidable staff of 32 journalists, some of them award-winning reporters and researchers from mainstream organizations.

In 2009, ProPublica produced 138 stories and partnered with 38 print, broadcast and online media organizations. The Pulitzer was the crowning achievement of the year, but there were other awards as well, including a George Polk Award, a Selden Ring Award and wins at the Investigative Reporters and Editors competition.

"The honors are gratifying, and we deeply appreciate them, but they are not a goal in themselves," wrote managing editor Paul Steiger on the group's website. "We view them as a sign that our nonprofit, nonpartisan model -- publishing both on our own Web site and in partnership with major print, video, audio and online news organizations -- can make a meaningful contribution to the information needs of the American people in an era of explosive change in newspapers and other media."

The awards will almost certainly provide a boost to similar groups that have sprung up across America, and are only now trying to grow in Canada. But they are by no means a guarantee of the long-term success for the model. Grants from foundations, like other charitable contributions, are subject to economic and political considerations, and can be withdrawn as easily as they are awarded.

Those non-profits that forge close links with ordinary readers, listeners and viewers -- audiences that are willing to pay for a high-quality product in one way or another -- will likely be the ones to succeed in the long run.